Carnival vs. Royal Caribbean: Smackdown!

carnival vs royal caribbean smackdown best
Who comes out on top when two cruise heavyweights go toe-to-toe? - Photo by Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International

These two lines rule the waves. They’re the cruise world’s biggest, most well-known players. Both have giant new ships geared toward just about everyone: young, old, singles, couples, and families. The cruises are low-priced (Carnival’s especially), casual, and focused on good old-fashioned fun rather than lectures or highbrow classes. The differences between the two lines lie in Royal Caribbean’s focus on sporty activities — think climbing walls and boxing rings — and Carnival’s innovative entertainment, like stand-up comedy and live concerts with big names. Read on to see how the two stack up:

Standard Cabins 

Carnival ships have always been as big on cabins as they are on fun, and you won’t find one in the fleet smaller than 185 square feet — even in the inside rooms. The shower stalls are roomy to match. Compare this with Royal Caribbean’s notoriously narrow tubelike showers (if you have to bend over to pick up your soap, good luck) that mirror the compact cabins — inside cabins on Majesty of the Seas measure a paltry 114 square feet. 

carnival vs royal caribbean standard cabins

Our Pick: Carnival  

Space rules. You can deal with a small cabin, but nobody wants to feel like a sardine.

Specialty Cabins

Royal Caribbean’s two-story, glass-walled loft suites on the Oasis- and Quantum-class ships have a sea-facing living room below and loft bedroom above. These two classes of ships also have prime suites facing the diving and swimming shows in the AquaTheater. For those with smaller budgets, the Quantum ships will have inside cabins with virtual balconies — digital panels displaying what’s happening outside the ship in real time. On older ships, Royal Caribbean was an innovator with interior cabins that overlook the busy interior public areas. Carnival’s cabins are very functional, but they’re predictable.

carnival vs royal caribbean specialty cabins

Our Pick: Royal Caribbean 

Carnival’s standard cabins definitely have size going for them, but Royal Caribbean’s have a twist.

 

Dining

Both lines have been working harder on what comes out of their galleys. Royal Caribbean’s soon-to-launch Quantum-class ships (the first is scheduled to set sail in November 2014) will have 18 restaurants, from classic pub grub by James Beard Award-winning Chef Michael Schwartz to rustic Italian from celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver and Asian fusion cuisine comprising Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian dishes. Some Royal Caribbean ships have pizzerias, doughnut shops, and hot dog stands; others have Johnny Rockets® diners. Meanwhile, Carnival’s been cooking up a storm with its Food Network star Guy Fieri-branded burgers and impressive poolside burrito bars. 

carnival vs royal caribbean dining food

Our Pick: Draw  

They both have impressive new options, plus some dependable old ones:  Carnival’s lunch buffets (the Indian section is excellent), and the burgers, shakes, and french fries in Royal Caribbean’s Johnny Rockets.

Activities

Royal Caribbean excels at innovation, from climbing walls and indoor ice-skating rinks to FlowRider® surfing simulators. The line moved on to diving and synchronized swimming shows, ziplining nine stories above deck, and now bumper cars and even a sky diving chamber are set to debut on Quantum of the Seas. For years, Carnival relied on basic fun, with passengers happily swigging beer out of the can and cheering on shipmates in belly flop contests by the pool, but hats off to the line for rolling with the times and offering a greater variety of things to do over the past few years, from the ropes course to minigolf, water slides, and game shows based on Hasbro favorites, like Connect Four.

carnival vs royal caribbean cruise activities

Our Pick: Royal Caribbean 

The line “went there” before anyone else did, and is still going bigger and better than the competition.

Entertainment

From the start, Carnival’s forte has been its ability to throw a really great party night after night, with passengers dancing the hours away in cavernous discos and popular piano bars. Over the years, Carnival added stand-up comedy — both R-rated and family shows — and, most recently, its ingenious live concert series featuring the likes of Foreigner and Jennifer Hudson. Royal Caribbean is no slouch, pulling out all the stops on the new Quantum class, where a full-length Broadway version of “Mamma Mia” will be part of the lineup, plus six high-tech robot-like screens that will “perform” for passengers. The line’s older ships have character parades, movies, and ice and water shows based on Royal Caribbean’s partnership with DreamWorks.

carnival vs royal caribbean entertainment cruise

Our Pick: Carnival 

It’s a close one, but Carnival’s nightlife and partying are unrivaled, even on its older, less high-tech ships.

 

 

Itineraries

The vast bulk of Carnival’s cruises ply the Caribbean, Bahamas, and Mexico, while Royal Caribbean’s fleet of globe-trotters hits those places plus everywhere else, including Europe, Asia, Australia, South America, Bermuda, and Alaska

carnival vs royal caribbean itineraries cruise

Our Pick: Royal Caribbean 

Its cruises will take you just about anywhere you want to go.

Kids

Both lines have water parks on deck and partnerships with famous characters — Royal Caribbean with the “Shrek” gang and Carnival with Dr. Suess — plus huge playrooms and supervised activities all day long on sea days. Royal Caribbean’s new nurseries are a boon to parents of babies and toddlers — drop off your little ones during the day or evening for an hourly fee (only Disney offers care for children as young). Meanwhile, for older kids, Carnival gets points for its Hasbro game shows and 24-hour pizza.

carnival royal caribbean kids

Our Pick: Royal Caribbean  

Royal Caribbean — Royal Caribbean wins with its drop-off care for under 3s and its private in-cabin babysitting option, not to mention the climbing walls, roller skating and other sports.

 

Overall

carnival vs royal caribbean overall smackdown

Our Pick: Royal Caribbean 

Royal Caribbean comes out on top — just barely — due to its envelope-pushing innovations. But both lines are winners for affordable, activity-packed cruises for all ages.

 

Join The Discussion

Which cruise line do you like best?

16 Comments

Posted by Sheri14

Been on 5 carnival cruises there was never dancing in the discos late at night. People walked in and walked out. Saw people playing cards in the evening. very boring entertainment. Heard Royal parties more!! Who agrees ?

Posted by cshorlock

Done both had great time on both but royal Caribbean ships are nicer, less crowded, and flow better. Carnival fun but plain and crowded. We stood in line for what seemed like everything on the magic.

Posted by CarnivalMan12

'ALL FOR FUN AND FUN FOR ALL' GO CARNIVAL!!!!!

Posted by JakeStuttgen

Royal Caribbean for the win!!!

Posted by cruiseaholictim

How can you say "Just Barly"? Readers voted RC better in almost every category by 0ver 30% average. You guys must be VIFP Elite members.

Posted by BobButtons

Royal Caribbean all the way!

Posted by TennCruiser

Carnival for me!!

Posted by laytonblue09

RCCL Whoop! Whoop!

Posted by CruiseDestiny

Haven't been on either yet. But I am really excited for the idea of waterslides for me and my kids however I am impressed with Royal Carribean baby daycare facilities as I will be cruising most likely with a baby and as a single mother that would be a huge plus.

Posted by PrincessDon

Royal Carribbean ALL THE WAY!!!!

Posted by cjpmpd

I have been on 3 Royal Caribbean cruises (Majesty, Enchantment, Independence) and 1 Carnival cruise (Triumph), and there is no comparison. ROYAL CARIBBEAN HANDS DOWN!! When you spend that kind of money for a vacation, I expect to be treated "royally." I've been blessed to be able to go on 4 cruises in my lifetime and I don't come by it monetarily easy. I tip good for good service. I do take into consideration the age of the ships, as well. Carnival is a "party ship." Not that I don't drink & have a good time. Royal is a much classier ship overall. We were VERY disappointed in the food in the dining room on Carnival as we expected it to be top-of-the-line as Royal was (ex., I ordered peas & carrots and got the typical "canned, square, carrots & peas" you buy at WalMart. We gave it a 2nd try and I ordered a grilled chicken breast and i couldn't even cut into it. Hard, cold and nothing special with it. Couldn't even finish it. Never had a hot meal the entire time on our 5 day cruise unless we ate at Guy's Burger Joint or the Asian Bar. Royal's dining room was like we were in Paris, Italy or any country being served by the chef who was cooking for us. Was absolutely FANTASTIC! I will never go back on a Carnival cruise. Felt very let down by them. Stood in line to get on. Stood in line to get off. Never experienced this on Royal. No reason for that. Just my opinion, of course.

Posted by cjw928

You lost me when you voted Carnival better for entertainment. RCCL is KNOWN for their entertainment... besides, everyone knows Norwegian is best! (free alcohol..need I say more?)

Posted by PurpleHouse

There's no way you can compare Royal Caribbean with Carnival. Carnival is a party ship where people get drunk all the time with making loud noises. Royal Caribbean is much more superior and elegant.

Posted by btift

Bathrooms in cabins are larger on Carnival..Also you pay extra to eat Johnny Rocket burgers on RC but Guys burgers are free on Carnival..No comparison to us..Carnival all the way!

Posted by luv2cruise1961

I have been on 2 Carnival cruises (just got back from one on Carnival the first of November), took an RC last year and have been on Norwegian and Princess. I have to say I was disappointed on the Royal Caribbean (the Navigator of the Seas) in the quality of food. I was really expecting big things and it didn't happen. I was also disappointed in the entertainment. Some nights there wasn't anything in the theater. Plus the shopping on the ship wasn't near as good as Carnival either. Another deal was the tube like showers where you could barely turn around. I'm not huge by any means but I don't know how some of those people I saw on the ship took showers because they are so small. The bathroom counter was great and the desk area was awesome too, but the Carnival shower was way bigger, but no sink counter space. We had an inside stateroom on Carnival that was at the end so our beds made an L shape, gave us tons of room, loved it. Plus there was lots of storage and closets. I picked this cruise because of the itinerary, we had 5 stops on it so we were only at sea 1 day. We also went during Halloween and that was the best time ever. They decorated the ship so cute and everyone dressed up in costumes. Will definitely do that again. For the price I paid for the Carnival cruise ($600) compared to the RC cruise which was considerably more (we had a balcony room on it), I would pick Carnival again and I'm already wanting to go on the new Vista. I guess it just depends on what your likes and dislikes are what you want to pay for. I'd rather spend less on the cruise and do more other things. The food is comparable for the most part on any ship, none of it is just outstanding in my opinion, but I had a great time on all of them. I just love to cruise and see new places.

Posted by DoileyChair

This is always an interesting debate. It’s like Ford vs. Chevy. (Although I don’t know why anybody would prefer either of those 2 over Toyota. ;) ) I believe that our own comparison is not necessarily fair at this time because we have cruised Carnival 9 times (Liberty, Fascination, Glory (3 times), Breeze, Dream and Vista) and only once so far on Royal Caribbean (Allure of the Seas). We have also cruised once on Norwegian (Sky). However we don’t hold that horrible 3 day booze cruise against Norwegian. And that is giving Norwegian a huge benefit of the doubt. And to prove that we are willing to try anything we have an upcoming cruise booked on MSC (Divina). ;) So after our 1 Royal cruise we made a “Pros and Cons” comparison list between Royal and Carnival. Below is some of our thoughts between the 2 in no specific order. Entertainment You have to give kudos to Royal for their Broadway shows. We saw “Momma Mia”. You would never see that on Carnival. However, you had to make reservations on Royal for ALL their entertainment. We weren’t a big fan of that. And all their shows were the same all week long (for the most part). So “Momma Mia” was on the schedule all week long except for like the last 2 nights they had something different. And the last night was the same comedy show that they had all week long in the teeny tiny comedy club. So not a lot of variety. They did have the water show but again I believe that was the same all week long as well. On Carnival the shows are different every night and so is the comedy. Now all too often Carnival’s comedy isn’t overly funny as their comedians are more “shock jocks” just trying to see how far they can go with cussing and “pushing the envelope”. The single comedy show on Royal was truly funny and entertaining. Carnival will typically add a different entertainer 1 time mid-week which is typically pretty good. We have seen in this 1 time mid-week show a hypnotist and a magician for example. Those were really funny shows. So Royal had the best overall shows (“Momma Mia”, comedy, water show) but Carnival by far has more variety. And some of our favorite entertainment is the guest participation shows such as Love and Marriage and the Quest. We didn’t think Royal’s Quest was as good as Carnival’s. However, the Quest on the Vista was more like the Quest we experienced on Royal. So maybe it has to do more with the larger ships and more participants. Food We like Carnival’s MDR food better. We had started to complain about some of Carnival’s MDR food until we had Royal’s MDR food. For instance, I love Carnival’s crab cakes. I always order way more than I should because they are so good. Well I ordered multiple on Royal and they were a huge let down. I ate them simply because I felt compelled to do so after ordering multiple. And I can’t think of a single item in the MDR that I preferred on Royal over Carnival. Even the lobster wasn’t as good on Royal as Carnival. It was too chewy. Johnny Rocket’s for the most part is comparable to Guy’s Burger Joint. (Like I said, for the most part.) But you have to pay for it. The Boardwalk Dog House on Royal was cool and free. And Royal’s pizza blows Carnival’s pizza away BIG TIME. The other pay for restaurants that we tried out on each line I believe are comparable. But Carnival’s seem to be cheaper. And Carnival has some really good cheap specialty stuff. For instance you can get some great desserts at their coffee bar cheap. And good cheap appetizers at Red Frog Pub. And cheap Stone Creamery-esc ice cream on the Vista. The “old fashioned” ice cream parlor on Royal was definitely more expensive. Regarding the buffet food it seems like (maybe not the case but seems like it) Carnival has a larger buffet area. But maybe that is because Royal had the same buffet area in 2 places. Since those buffet areas are exactly the same we were only in 1. So multiple that by 2 and I guess it is the same size as Carnival’s. But regarding the food, yeah it’s buffet food. So it is what it is. They are pretty equivalent in the buffet food department. However, Royal has stations for their buffet food. Whereas Carnival you have to wait in long lines. Those stations on Royal are an excellent idea that prevents the freakin’ long lines you have to wait in on Carnvial. Staff We found Royal’s staff not nearly as friendly as Carnival’s staff. That doesn’t mean that Royal’s staff was mean or rude or anything. And those that helped us at guest services were very friendly and helpful. But overall, our experience has been that Carnival’s staff is friendlier. Now we have certainly experienced Carnival staff that wasn’t any more friendly than what we experienced on Royal but overall Carnival has been friendlier. And our Personal Vacation Planner (or whatever they are called at Royal) told us that she would have a wine and cheese platter or some such thing sent to our room to welcome us to Royal. We got nothing. Now I never expected anything from Royal for trying them out for the first time. But don’t tell me that you will do something then don’t do it. Guests Now here is where people trash Carnival. People claim all the time that the guests on Carnival are not nearly as “classy” as guests on other lines. Maybe so. But I don’t necessarily find “classier people” to be very “classy” if you will. More often than not they are snobs and look down on others. And they think they are better and deserved to be treated better even if that means walking all over those that aren’t as “classy”. To me, “classy” is a by-product of a society built on the class system. I prefer to not live in or experience the class system myself. Anyway, of the 9 Carnival cruises that we have been on I can only think of a couple of incidents where we saw people “acting out” if you will. And that wasn’t all cruise long. Those were specific incidents. And I’m sure that those incidents were fueled by alcohol. And that is what I hear all the time about Carnival, “It’s filled with a bunch of drunk people”. No, that was our 3 day Norwegian booze cruise. We haven’t encountered the hordes of drunk people on Carnival that we seem to always hear about. Matter of fact, I recently heard someone who is loyal to Royal tell me about all his encounters with drunk people on Royal but will NEVER cruise Carnival because it is so ripe with drunkenness. (OK, way to judge something you have never even experienced.) We have typically always found the other guests on Carnival to be friendly and polite for the most part. The rudest guests that we recall encountering are typically non-Americans. They often will push and shove their way through a line or crowd. Not all non-Americans do this. But typically when you see this done it is by a non-American. It’s extremely rude behavior that I just assume is a cultural thing as in that’s how they do it back home. Who knows? Anyway, on Royal I joked that I had never seen so many wheels on a ship before: strollers, walkers, wheel chairs, power scooters. They were everywhere. Now I don’t begrudge any of those people. I’m just saying if you feel like a cruise ship is crowed then these items make the ship feel even more crowded as they take up more room. And I mentioned the non-Americans on Carnival, I think there were more non-Americans on Royal. I’m certainly not opposed to non-Americans. It’s just something to be aware of in regards to possible “pushing and shoving”. And we saw way more little kids on Royal. In other words, they weren’t spending their time in the children’s area but rather with their parents roaming the ship. Matter of fact 1 night in the Royal Promenade a couple had their 2 young kids with them in the middle of the floor during the after show party. The kids got tired and just laid down on the floor. Now these were young kids but yet old enough to know better. And the parents did nothing about it. The place was packed. You could hardly move the place was so packed. People were trying to walk through and there were these kids lying on the floor. What was worse is when a “set of wheels” tried to move through this crowd and there are these kids on the floor right in the way. So our take from the 1 Royal cruise that we went on is that the guests weren’t as polite and friendly as they are on Carnival. Again this is an unfair comparison because we have only been on 1 Royal cruise. And EVERY cruise is different simply based on the guests alone. As a side note, I stated earlier that we enjoy the guest participation shows so I would like to suggest that Royal have power scooter races. ;) Ships As I said, thus far we have only been on 1 Royal cruise and it was intentionally on an Oasis class ship. I wanted to experience the big ship. We encountered many loyal to Royal guests that said “This ship sucks!” We were shocked. We liked the ship. And we enjoyed the cruise. But they complained that the ship was too big and therefore the service wasn’t as good because there were too many people that the staff had to attend to. And all these people highly recommended the Freedom class ships. We definitely want to try Royal again. And when we do we will cruise on a Freedom class ship so that we can compare the differences. And after cruising on Carnival’s biggest ship (Vista) I can understand what the loyal to Royal folks were talking about. The Vista was fine but we do prefer the 2 classes below the Vista better. And maybe that is the case due to the staff to guest ratio. Who knows? There were definitely some things that we did like about the Vista but then there were some things that we didn’t like about the Vista. And to be honest those things that we didn’t like seemed to be imitations of the way things were done on our Royal cruise. Regarding the physical ships themselves, we typically have no complaints with any of the ships that we have cruised on. Now, we do prefer 3 closets in our room opposed to only 2. And shelves in the bathroom on each side of the mirror. And a fridge in the room. And there was a Carnival ship that had a color theme of purple that my wife didn’t care for. But for the most part, we are not that nit-picky. We are simply glad to be on a cruise. Bottom Line We have more “Pros” for Carnival. And you can find cheaper cruises on Carnival. However, when comparing “apples to apples” Royal isn’t that much more expensive. And as I said, we definitely want to cruise Royal again. So it’s not like we are anti Royal. We just prefer Carnival… for now. ;) And I always get a kick out of those people who like to trash something, such as Carnival, but yet they have never even experienced that thing they are trashing. Can you say “credibility problem”? I knew you could. ;)

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